With New Cabinet, Modi Measures the Crease

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

When raised to stratospheric levels, expectations are impossible to fulfil. Given his past record as chief minister of Gujarat and his flamboyant campaign, Narendra Modi would seem to have made a steady but not quite scintillating start to his innings as prime minister. He has not tried to hook the fast bowlers over square leg. Rather, he has sized up the field, taken a few measured singles and settled down for a long innings. One needs to assess his ministerial choices in this context. (Narendra Modi is Prime Minister, Takes Oath with 45 Ministers )

There are four aspects to the formation of the council of ministers that need to be noted. First, Modi has fought off enormous internal pressure to actually effect a generational change and keep away ministers who are aged above 75. This has put a finish to many distinguished careers - L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, C.P. Thakur, B.C. Khanduri, Shanta Kumar. It has not been easy to do this and the political battle it represents needs to be appreciated. (Narendra Modi's Council of Ministers: Complete List)

Second, by steering clear of dynastic politicians, Modi has sent a message. True, Piyush Goel's late father was a BJP minister and Maneka Gandhi and Harsimrat Kaur Badal (Akali Dal) would probably not have made it in politics without being daughters-in-law of powerful families. Nevertheless, that there was no place for, say, an Anurag Thakur or a Dushyant Singh - reasonable contenders for minister of state roles - indicates that to the degree possible Modi may want a one family-one (executive) position rule in the BJP.

Third, the top of the order is relatively inexperienced if one contrasts it with the NDA cabinet of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Of the likely members of the Cabinet Committee on Security - Modi himself, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley - none has ever served in the CCS. In contrast, Vajpayee, Advani and George Fernandes - the presiding troika in the NDA government that took office in 1998 - had been cabinet ministers as far back as 1977.

Having said that, this top order represents the best the BJP has available, in terms of combining ministerial experience with political standing. Whether it is in giving Swaraj the Ministry of External Affairs or in burdening Jaitley with two heavy-duty portfolios, Modi has challenged his most senior colleagues to raise their game. It is in their political interests to succeed.

Fourth, while the top order gets to be noticed, it is the middle order that will make or break the government - the first-time ministers in their 40s or early 50s (or in the case of Smriti Irani in their late 30s). Here Modi has made some inspired and ambitious choices.

There's Piyush Goel as both power and coal minister. His job will be to synergise two ministries that were talking past each other in the UPA years - and to get coal that is available under the ground to spanking new power plants that are inexplicably starved of coal.

Nirmala Sitharaman is the minister of state for commerce (independent charge) as well as minister of state for finance (understudy to Jaitley). Diligent and articulate, Sitharaman will be going back to her roots. As an academic, her thesis was on India-Europe textile trade within the GATT framework. Later, she was part of the then Price Waterhouse research unit in London, working on transferring western audit systems to post-Cold War Eastern Europe.

Prakash Javadekar has been among the BJP's best prepared debaters in the Rajya Sabha in recent years. As minister for both information and broadcasting and more so environment, forests and climate change - and with a clean reputation - he can bring fresh eyes to what have become jaded departments.

Dharmendra Pradhan is another rising star in the BJP whose hard work in the campaign has been rewarded with the petroleum and natural gas ministry.

A quiet, understated man, Harsh Vardhan, given his background in the anti-polio programme, is the best possible choice for the health ministry.

Finally, there is Irani, a cabinet minister at 38. At first glance, she may not seem an obvious fit for an HRD Ministry that needs urgent upgrade. However, here Modi was probably guided by the sense that he needed to build the profile of young women politicians with a mass following, as well as with loyalty to him. Also, like in some other ministries, one suspects Modi and his PMO will guide, chaperone and work in close conjunction with the new HRD minister.

That final point is crucial. Modi has announced his council of ministers; he has not completed the process of structuring his government. Knowing him, there's more to come.

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